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Youth and employment Part 1: Are internships the new temp work?

December 26, 2009

Soon to be exploited fresh-faced youth.

I’ve now been out of undergrad for about a year and a half. Since receiving my diploma, I’ve taken the time to travel and work in different places, doing different things, “exploring myself,” as it were. Lovely as the time was, this idleness left me with an atrophying mind, and upon returning to North America, I began looking for work, hoping for a bit more structure after a year of floating. Suddenly, I felt ready to go head first into the career world and see what I could find.

So I searched. And searched and searched—through Craiglist-type classifieds, by hounding organisations that I hoped would hire me, through friends and connections I had acquired in my short 23 years. I felt confident in my skills and abilities, proud of my CV, presentable and bright-eyed and optimistic.

And what did I find?

Internships. Lots and lots of internships. Most of them unpaid.

Such positions are, in theory, a way for the world’s youth to gain experience in their selected field of interest: one explores the work, gets a nice, shiny letter of recommendation, and moves on to bigger and better things like, say, managing other interns. Internships have traditionally been viewed as a way to get one’s foot in the door and move up, slowly but surely, either within a specific organisation or an industry at large.

But increasingly, internships are simply a way for employers to get cheap or free short-term labor that is marketed as benefiting interns themselves, rather than for what they often really are: glorified temp work.

Internships obviously vary from organisation to organisation and industry to industry, but there are some common themes we can look to regardless of an intern’s career ambitions. Interns often work long hours on projects that they are technically under-qualified for: while a job description for a long-term paid position may call for a Masters degree and several years’ work experience, bright, young, hard-working interns often do the same tasks as their hired counterparts but get marginal recognition and even less pay. In many circles, this is simply seen as part of the game: again, at least in theory, you’ve got to be the lowest of the low in order to one day be at the top. It’s a hazing, of sorts, a way to pay your dues so that someday, when a former intern is the next Executive Director, he or she can say to that new bright, over-worked intern that they too can have a chance; and be living proof that this is so.

Other internships are, of course, far less grueling and also often far less gratifying. In the halls of universities and corners of coffee shops, one can find throngs of young people swapping stories about how many paper cuts were acquired during their last summer internship, in which coffee-grabbing and paper filling took up most of the day.

But whether someone is over-worked or under-worked, the basic principle is the same: interns are an organisation’s pee-on, the gofer, the one clinging to the last rung of a very tall ladder. The only problem is that increasingly, it looks like that ladder never ends.

It’s my experience that internships are no longer a way to get one’s foot in the door, but a way to get to a way to get to a way to get one’s foot in the door. I’ve been lucky enough to rack up a number of internships in my day, and in my recent quest for work have found that regardless of how often I’ve “paid my dues,” it seems like the bill just keeps on going; I’m most qualified for other internships rather than good paying, full time jobs. Internships are no longer positions reserved for university kids hoping to gain experience before they graduate, but moreso are used as short-term jobs that offer little room for growth for recent grads thrown into a troubled economy.

I blame this never-ending internship ladder partly on the chronic under-funding of non-profits that so heavily rely on free or cheap labour, and partly on the occurrence of the labour market being flooded with too many bright, over-educated and well-qualified kids. Both phenomena are compounded by the current recession.

Interns are relied upon by non-profits and other cash-strapped organisations that have high hopes for projects but little money to make these dreams a reality. In order to make each buck go farther, optimistic and idealistic interns are promised good work experience (often for a “great cause”) in exchange for free labor. The economic recession has resulted in such organisations being even more financially weak, but not necessarily in them aiming to do less work. Interns, therefore, are even more heavily relied upon to finish projects fast and cost-effectively without necessitating the employer to sign a contract or promise benefits: there’s a certain type of jobless-security from the employers’ perspectives, who know that if tomorrow everything goes to hell in a hand-basket, expendable interns can be cut first.

But while the number of internships seems to be increasing as a result of the recession, so too does the number of people applying for such positions. The downturn has overwhelmed the market with over-qualified and under-employed persons who are looking for just about anything they can get rather than the job that their degree has supposedly trained them for. People with Bachelors are competing with those with Masters for positions that would previously have been considered dismal and entry-level. As the Bachelors among us continue to lose jobs to their more-qualified counterparts, they begin to look for those heretofore reserved for first-timers still in university. Essentially, the whole system is shifting downwards, with more and more qualified people competing for fewer and fewer jobs.

After much searching, and in an act of desperation, I finally took a low-paying two-month-long internship. Over a hundred people applied for this position. I don’t say this to brag, but simply to note that  despite all of their problems, internships are still highly coveted—and increasingly competitive. Looking at the number and type of internships available today gives me little hope that our economy is, as our political leaders promise, truly on the mend; especially for those of us under 25.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mara Kardas-Nelson permalink*
    January 20, 2010 12:39 pm

    I think that the system of unpaid, over-worked internships that are treated more like temp work that an opportunity to train young, enthusiastic future employees is very much to the detriment of the organizations that use such tactics, as well as the future of the workforce as a whole. Internships are, in theory, a way for young people to get their hands dirty and explore the world and its work, helping them to find their way and looking to older employees as mentors. Without a wing to go under, young interns are instead discarded as quickly as they are hired, and replaced with another eager-beaver, who will then be discarded only months later, and so on. It’s not only degrading to the interns themselves, but more worrisome creates a system of under-paid, over-worked and burnt out would-be-enthusiasts who instead are completely disenchanted with the notion that meaningful long-term employment exists, especially within the non-profit sector.

  2. January 20, 2010 12:30 pm

    You know, I actually just read this post (late) due to being away during the holidays, and I have to agree – the picture you paint, from my experiences, is really realistic. I’ve been extremely fortunate due to my background to get several contract positions in event-planning, design and community-building in addition to my full-time job with Canada’s World — but I can only imagine how hard it must be if one isn’t as lucky as I have been. Most of my friends, highly motivated and qualified, have not been able to find adequate jobs after graduation — and knowing your background, Mara, I’m shocked that you have had any kind of trouble finding a good-paying position. Organizations just don’t know what they’re missing by not offering more realistic entry-level jobs for ambitious graduates. Here’s hoping that things get easier for recent grads in the future…

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